Feb 26, 2018

Ongoing Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia Speech – 26 Feb 2018

I start my contribution on the Appropriation Bill (No.3) 2017-2018 by reflecting on Australia Day in Hampton Park and the Day of Nations. It was a good day, particularly given the contribution made by the Hampton Park Progress Association and the good volunteers who are involved with it on the Hampton Park progress committee. What it did was demonstrate the diversity that exists within our country. Referring to the Day of Nations means that the local community, particularly in Hampton Park, came together to celebrate the contribution that people make, regardless of their walk of life, where they came from or what religion they practice. It was a great spirit there.

One of the key issues that has arisen in my constituency over some period of time is the persecution of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. I have had fairly extensive consultations with the Oromo community, particularly with three representatives from that community. I made a commitment to them that I would raise in this place their ongoing concerns about human rights issues and persecution in Ethiopia, in particular the ongoing plight of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. The representatives that I spoke to updated me on the latest developments regarding the Oromo protests in Ethiopia. I have spoken on numerous occasions about how, over recent years, the Oromo people who, according to the Oromo diaspora, newspaper reports and the US congress, experience ongoing persecution and are targeted by the Ethiopian government.

Since April 2014, the Oromo have been staging protest rallies across Ethiopia against, in their words, ‘the systematic marginalisation and persecution of ethnic Oromo’. The immediate trigger for the first wave of protests was a development plan that sought to expand the territorial limits of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into neighbouring Oromo villages and towns. Oromos saw the proposed master plan as a blueprint for annexation, which would further accelerate the eviction of the Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands. In light of the Oromo protests, the Ethiopian government has used overwhelming force—this has been seen on many occasions, and I have spoken about it in this House—to crush the protests, killing hundreds of protesters and arresting thousands.

According to my sources within the Oromo community, the Oromo diaspora here in Australia, in light of the ongoing persecution, on the 11 February 2018 the youth of the Oromia region launched a new protest and a three-day market boycott. This drastic economic boycott suspended the operation of businesses and government activities. It was unlike any other protest in the history of the country. The objectives of this particular boycott were: to drop all charges against senior opposition leaders and release all political prisoners without any preconditions; to stop displacing Oromos from their land and intimidating the Oromo people; to stop the war waged on the Oromo people along the Oromia border with the Somali region, using the notorious Somali special forces known as ‘Liyu police’; and to stop the killing of innocent people by the army.

The impact of the boycott was felt nationally, as the whole Oromia region boycotted the movement of people, goods and services across the country. Markets were closed down. Civil servants did not turn up to government offices, and schools and universities were closed. The transportation system was also brought to a complete halt. This boycott was well organised, disciplined and attracted support from just about every different grouping of the community and the country. As a result of this boycott, the Ethiopian government was shaken to its core within a matter of 48 hours. Consequently, 70 opposition leaders, including Bekele Gerba, the secretary-general of the opposition party, were released. Bekele Gerba, the secretary-general of the Oromo Federalist Congress was arrested in December 2015 after mass protests broke out in the Oromia region over accusations that farmers were being forced to sell land, with scant compensation for the plan.

In light of the release of key opposition leaders, as well as other prisoners, the third day of the boycott was called off. That resulted in jubilation across Ethiopia and particularly across Oromia. However, in addition to these celebrations, the Oromia peoples are mourning the loss of over 30 civilians who were killed in various cities across the country by a special government unit called Agazi. The most callous of these cruelties took place at the Hamaressa camp. On 11 February this year, as the boycott commenced, the Agazi invaded the Hamaressa camp in eastern Oromia where defenceless and displaced people were sheltering. Over 13 people were killed. Other Oromia people were uprooted from their homes by the government militia.

Unfortunately, as I speak, I’m informed that close to one million Oromo internally displaced peoples in Bale, Burana and Harar deserts are exposed to starvation and other human rights violations. These internally displaced peoples are now surviving on help that is being sourced globally by Oromos, including those in Australia. I think our displaced Oromo diaspora believes that the Australian government should consider providing aid relief to the Oromo peoples experiencing hardship in Ethiopia.

They’ve also let me know about something pretty disturbing that occurred in relation to Facebook, which resulted in an online petition that called on Facebook to immediately unblock the Facebook account of Jawar Mohammed, the executive director of the Oromia Media Network and a prominent Ethiopian political activist, who has over 1.2 million followers. He was able to use Twitter but not Facebook. According to the head petitioner, Girma Gutema, an Oromo living in Norway, it was particularly disconcerting to see Facebook block Jawar’s account at this critical time when the Ethiopian people were campaigning to free all political prisoners in Ethiopia.

Jawar, as a longtime and prolific user of Facebook for over 13 years, had a significant role in the effort of the Ethiopian people to free themselves of the existing oppressive regime. The act of blocking Jawar Mohammed’s account by Facebook violates freedom of expression and breaches the user guidelines of Facebook itself. In the end, the petition called on Facebook executives to immediately unblock the account of Jawar Mohammed and publicly apologise to the millions of Ethiopian Facebook users who felt that Facebook might compromise their privacy and personal data. I understand that that Facebook account has now been unblocked. But I would raise in this House, when we are talking about companies like Facebook and social media, talking about their freedoms being encroached upon by impending government legislation, bad encryption or other things, that blocking someone’s account who has been using their account the 13 years—and my understanding is not advocating violent activities, but for peaceful protest—does call into question, the capacity of totalitarian governments to influence social media providers. I think that’s an issue that my friend the Hon. Mike Kelly, the member for Eden-Monaro, would share with me as something that I think that our intelligence and security committee will be looking at. It’s hard for Facebook to be arguing about their freedoms when they have actively suppressed the freedom on Facebook of someone who is a key leader of the Oromo community without sufficient justification; and, coincidentally, that block is then removed after the Ethiopian government had released political prisoners. I think that’s something that if Facebook actually looked at I would like them to respond to. I don’t think it’s satisfactory. On behalf of Oromo community, both here and in Ethiopia, I ask: why was this gentleman’s Facebook account blocked? In the view of many of the Oromo diaspora in this country as well, they believe that there need to be some answers provided. So I would urge the Ethiopian government and will continue to rise on half of the Oromo community in my constituency and elsewhere in Victoria and this country, to cease the ongoing persecution of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. I will continue to work with Oromo leaders in Victoria and overseas to continue to highlight their concerns.

Some will say that what happens in Africa does not affect our country. That is just not true. Africa is a growing series of countries that will have an increasing say in what happens in world affairs. What does happen in Ethiopia, regardless of how far away people think it is, does have an impact and ultimately will have an impact on this country. What happens to the Ethiopian government—there is a fairly substantial transition occurring at present period of time. We’re not exactly sure where that will lead to, but it does have an impact on Africa. It does have an impact on the security of the country. It does have an impact on the diaspora communities here. Depending on what the outcome is, it could have a quite destabilising impact on those countries within Africa. So when people say that is none of our concern or none of our business, it is, because ultimately this does impact on us. It does have some influence and bearing on us. It is something that I will continue to raise in this chamber.

The other thing I want to raise in the time remaining is the issue of human rights persecutions in Cambodia. Over recent months I’ve continued to be briefed by the president of the Cambodian Association of Victoria, Councillor Youhorn Chea, and also the City of Greater Dandenong Councillor Heang Tak, along with Hong Lim, the retiring member for Clarinda in the Victorian parliament. Why we have an interest in Cambodia in particular is that before in foreign affairs minister and the former member for Holt, Gareth Evans, was a key influence of the Cambodia peace accord. Hun Sen was around at that time. I don’t think Gareth in his wildest dreams would have thought that we would be in a situation where we would be talking in this parliament about Hun Sen, his activities and what he has been doing in Cambodia, particularly to the opposition. I think that should cause us all grave concern. I know that Gareth has been strongly outspoken with respect to the human rights abuses that have been occurring in Cambodia, and he will continue to be, given that he was the father of the Cambodian peace accord.

I want to read into the parliamentary record that according to Lindsay Murdoch’s article in The Age:

Cambodia’s ruling party has drawn-up a five-year plan that critics say will entrench the dictatorship of strongman Hun Sen through intimidation, harassment and arrests. The plan crushes hopes that Hun Sen would allow a return to political freedoms and a semblance of democracy after mid-year elections.

Unfortunately the Cambodian government state agencies in Phnom Penh last year launched a sweeping crackdown targeting the opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, non-government organisations, human rights and labour activists, independent media outlets and foreigners living in the country.

I’d like to commend the member for Hotham for her work in advocating in this place on behalf of the Cambodian Association of Victoria, and obviously share the concern of the well-established, law-abiding, peaceful Cambodian community in this country who feel deeply concerned about what’s happening in Cambodia at this time. I am deeply concerned by the Cambodian Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, and ban CNRP parliamentarians and officials from engaging in politics for five years. It is essential that Cambodia has a viable opposition and a free press. Australia has a long history working with the Cambodian people to create a fairer and more democratic Cambodia. The Paris Peace Accords, as I have mentioned before, in which Australia played a central role, promised the Cambodian people the right to free and fair elections. I would certainly urge the Cambodian government—and I know that Hun Sen will be visiting this country soon—to reconsider its ongoing persecution of opposition parties and dissenting forces in Cambodia.

In the time I have remaining I want to go back to the Hampton Park Day of Nations. What was really instructive about the Hampton Park Day of Nations was the diversity that we saw. At the Day of Nations we also held the Holt Australia Day Awards to honour people who had made a contribution to a better community, and the people whose names we read out came from all parts of the world. It didn’t matter what race, colour or creed; they were all Australians and we were all honouring the contribution that they had made to this country. In the ongoing discussion that occurs about this country, we need to remember that we ask them to abide by our laws and values but they also make a substantial contribution to our country—something that we should continue to honour and recognise. (Time expired)


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